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Synopsis of Michel Tort, ‘Le Concept freudien de “Représentant”’

[‘The Freudian Concept of “Representative”’]

CpA 5.2:41–67

Michel Tort’s article was first presented as a paper at a seminar on psychoanalysis at the École Normale Supérieure in March 1966. It is an analysis of a Freudian term, Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz (translated into English as ‘psychical representative’ or ‘ideational representative’), that had assumed new importance in the reconstruction of the principles of psychoanalysis undertaken by Lacan and his students in the 1960s. For Lacan, Jean Laplanche, Serge Leclaire and André Green, amongst others, the term had become a central clue for thinking through the psychoanalytic account of the relations between drive and representation, the physical and the mental, and between affect and signification. Tort’s aim in this essay is to conduct a rigorous analysis of the term, to relocate its context in Freud’s work, and to criticise misinterpretations of the significance of the term in the Lacanian psychoanalysis of the time. His conclusion is that Freud’s insistence on the biological aspects of the drive is fundamental to the epistemological break made by psychoanalysis in the field of psychology.

The term ‘Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz’ only appears in Freud’s 1914 essay ‘Repression’. Freud writes: ‘We have reason to assume that there is a primal repression, a first phase of repression, which consists in the psychical (ideational) representative Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz] of the drive being denied entrance into the conscious’ (SE 14: 148). Tort begins by recalling Laplanche and Leclaire’s proposal, in their 1961 article ‘L’Inconscient: une étude psychanalytique’, to translate Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz as ‘>représentant représentatif’. Laplanche and Leclaire had suggested that the Repräsentanz in question primarily ‘designates the function of translation of the drive with which the “representation” (Vorstellung) has been cathected’.1 Tort concurs with Laplanche and Leclaire’s use of the term, but argues that the term ‘representative’ [représentatif] remains ambiguous and open to misinterpretation. The main problem that has arisen in the literature, according to Tort, is that Freud’s basic point of departure, the problem of the relationship between quantities of excitation on the one hand, and the drive as a mental phenomenon on the other, has been gradually occluded, and the discussion diverted into questions about representation (and of signification in general).

For instance, in a 1965 article on Freud’s case of the ‘Rat Man’, published in Les Temps modernes, Octave Mannoni had suggested that with his notion of Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz, Freud had sought to ‘remain faithful to an ancient concept of language which consists in making language a collection of images of a particular type, namely, verbal images which are substituted for other images, thus representing the representations’.2 Tort replies that this is a separate problem (to do with Wortvorstellungen and Sachvorstellungen in Freud’s article on ‘The Unconscious’; SE 14: 196-204), and that ‘it is quite useless to wonder how the same Freudian concept could be properly applied to two problems’ (CpA 5.2:44; trans. 19).

Tort also criticises Lacan’s use of the translation ‘tenant lieu de la représentation’ for Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz, which also risks detaching the term from its context and transposing it into the problematic of representation. In his 1958 essay on Ernest Jones’s theory of symbolism, Lacan had claimed that Freud’s term ‘leaves no room for ambiguity on this point: it is the signifier that is repressed, there being no other meaning that can be given in these texts to the word Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz. As for affects, Freud expressly formulates that they are not repressed’ (E, 714/598). Lacan’s conception was taken up by Laplanche and Leclaire, who argued that the ‘ideational representatives’ are the original ‘signifiers’ of the unconscious. However, they qualified Lacan’s view by specifying that the problem of the Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz concerns how the excitations of the drive become linked to a particular set of representations.3 Given that Jacques-Alain Miller uses the term ‘tenant lieu’ or placeholder in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse to describe the operation by which signification and representation come to ‘suture’ the movement of the unconscious (CpA 1.3:39), Tort’s critique of Lacan’s interpretation of Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz would appear to extend as far as Miller’s appropriation of Lacan. Tort’s article is thus an intervention in a very specific debate within Lacanian theory. In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, Leclaire and André Green also provide further analyses of the meaning of the term Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz. In the first seminar of ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’, Leclaire departs from the term in his analysis of the relation between drive and signifier (CpA 2.5:127), while in his essay on the logic of the objet petit a Green suggests that Freud’s term implies that the signifier has two sides, representation and affect, both of which are part of the fundamental operation of signification (CpA 3.2:21; trans. 170).4

Tort’s contention is that the term Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz is a specialised version of a more general Freudian term, the ‘drive representative’ [Triebrepräsentanz]. Vorstellungsrepräsentanz is a species of the Repräsentanz, or what Tort will translate as the ‘representance’ [représentance] that is proper to drives [Triebe] in the first place (CpA 5.2:45; trans. 19). In the 1895 ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’, Freud affirms the ‘dependence of the psychical apparatus with respect to quantities of excitation which are endogenous, that is, which come from within the body’ (CpA 5.2:45; trans. 20. Cf. SE 1: 295-310). When Freud treats the drives as internal stimuli (as opposed to external stimuli, which can be repelled through fight or flight mechanisms), he conceives the drive as ‘both naturally exterior to the psychism [psychisme] in that it comes from the body as an alien and naturally interior so long as it has its “direct pathway”’ (ibid). The drive ‘feeds the psychism’, and is at the ‘origin’ of the operations of the psychic apparatus. All drives, not just sexuality, are sources of endogenous excitation.

[T]he relation between the drives and the psychism is conceived under the form of a series of periodic transformations of what is properly drive energy into psychic energy which have been ordered by the crossing of a certain threshold (SE 14:130-31). Over a certain accumulation, somatic energy (Trieb) is transformed into psychical energy (Antrieb) in the nervous system or psychical apparatus (CpA 5.2:46; trans. 21).

When Freud starts to focus on the sexual drive, the problem remains the same: how to conceive the ‘translation’ of the periodic transformations of drive energy into the space of the ‘psychism’ (47/22). The function of the ‘representance’ of the drive has its origins here.

Losing sight of this basic problem leads to interpretative confusion. Although it might appear that in some texts (specifically ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’ and ‘The Unconscious’) Freud begins with a physiological conception of the drive as a ‘force’, and shifts to an account of the drive as ‘the form of psychical manifestation of this force itself’ (48/22), on closer inspection, there is no real contradiction in Freud’s writings on this point. Tort puts forward a ‘double-aspect’ view of the drive, according to which the basic phenomenon, Trieb, appears according to two points of view, physiological force and psychical representation.

The drive appears as a mixed phenomenon to which a dual approach is possible: a physiological-biological approach treating the source of the excitation as a specific chemism [chimisme], and a psychological approach insofar as the phenomenon of internal excitation reveals properly psychical forms of manifestation. In reality, the drive is, then, at one and the same time endogenous excitation and psychical manifestation of it, and this is why it is envisaged successively under these two points of view at the beginning of ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’ (49/23).

When Freud appears to reserve the name of drive for psychical manifestations (as in certain passages in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’), it is due to the ‘epistemological view’ he adopts in these particular passages. The underlying problematic nevertheless remains the same, even if ‘this dual perspective is possibly not tenable to the end’. It concerns the ‘psychical working-over’ of energy. ‘In these matters, no reference is made to representation in the sense of Vorstellung’ (50/24).

How then are we to understand the key text in question, the passage in Freud’s ‘Repression’ that refers to ‘a first phase of repression, which consists in the psychical (ideational) representative [Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz] of the drive being denied entrance into the conscious’ (SE 10: 148)? Tort points out that in ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’ (both texts date from 1914), ‘repression is defined as a specific vicissitude of the drive [destin de pulsion]’ (50/24). The impulses of the drive are the primary reference point. ‘The reality whose vicissitudes or transformations theoretical analysis ought to pursue is the drive itself [...], and never the representation as such’. What happens in ‘Repression’ is a specification of the general problem of the transformation of the drives. The initial context of the passage concerns the production of a ‘fixation’. When Freud suggests a relation between repression and the conscious/unconscious opposition in psychical systems, he implicitly makes use of the fundamental concept of the Triebrepräsentanz as a mediating term (53/26).

But Tort admits that an ‘ambiguity’ or ‘equivocity’ nevertheless haunts the function of Repräsentanz. The function implicitly obeys ‘the idea of something like a deduction of the psychical, with the drive representing “itself” in the psychism’ (53/27). In fact, ‘the concept of Repräsentant and the dual perspective structure presuppose the movement of expression (Ausdruck), of manifestation’ (ibid). The idea of a ‘deduction’ that takes its point of departure in a ‘meeting of two exterior elements with one another’ ends up leading to ‘the supposition of a sort of mythical state of the drive anterior to its psychical representatives (a myth which is realised in the first transformation schemes of somatic energy into psychical energy)’ (54/27). Hence although the concept of the Triebrepräsentanz has nothing to do with the epistemological problem of representation, it has its own problems insofar as it presupposes a mysterious framework of ‘expression’.

Working through these problems, Freud arrives at a new but equally problematic articulation of the relations between drive and representation. He does not resolve what Laplanche and Leclaire identify as ‘the major obscurity of the Freudian economic hypothesis’: ‘the identification of psychical energy of different systems (cathexis) with sexual energy (libido)’ (55/28).5 Instead, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), he affirms ‘an entirely speculative and “biological” theory of the nature of the drive’ (59/31). Freud’s ‘mythologising and biologising of the drive’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle conjures up a spurious ‘aim’ at the ‘organic’ level, so that Freud now speaks of the ‘aim’ of Eros or the ‘final’ aims of the drive as such, in a way at odds with his earlier, more rigorous conception of the aims of the drive in ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’ (60/31). The ‘schema of representance’ nevertheless persists in Freud’s later work. With his theory of desexualisation in ‘The Ego and the Id’ (1923), in which the ‘life drive’ is sublimated into an ‘undifferentiated psychical energy’, Freud finds a new way to defend the idea of a ‘deduction of psychical energy and of the psychic processes in general starting from the drive’ (63/35). The problem is that paradoxically he has to ‘impute to initial sexual energy (Eros) as such the psychical characteristics which conceptualised the structuration of the sexual drive by the psychism (the concept of displacement over objects)’ (ibid).

Freud is forced into a ‘biological hypostasis’ of the drive (59/31). The difficulties in Freud’s account of Repräsentanz arise from his insistence on a ‘biological, organic particularity of sexuality’ (65/36). But that ‘Freud should finish up with pure speculation is sufficient to indicate without ambiguity that this “biology” is an ideological myth [...] A form of scientificity which can only be imported into a domain in a speculative form is ideological for sure.’ The speculative evolutionism of Beyond the Pleasure Principle contrasts with Marx’s attitude towards Darwinism. Whereas Marx was able to distinguish the field of historical materialism from that of Darwinian evolution, Freud was not so successful. However, this is largely due to his field being that of the drives, whose borderline status between the biological and mental is more acute than in historical materialism. ‘In Marx’s case, biological ideology is in a much looser relation to the theory of history than is possible in the psychoanalytic theory of the drives’ (66/37).

In his hypostatised account of the initial drive, Freud’s appeals to biology are nothing more than ‘speculative ideology’. Nevertheless, it was essential to Freud’s epistemological break that he conceived the reality of the drive as biological. Tort concludes that Freud’s rupture is related to his initial conception of the drive, and his focus on sexuality as a paradigmatic form of the drive. ‘The irruption of sexuality into the psychism [...] is the foundation of the model of Repräsentanz’ (66/37). Tort concludes that the concept of Repräsentanz ‘is not a rigorous concept but the ideological designation of an absolutely new relation between sexuality as drive and the representation imposed by clinical experience’. If ‘the specific object of psychoanalysis is subjected to the distortion of an ideology’, then ‘the linearity of the theoretical scheme’ (i.e. that of ‘representance’ and its ‘deduction’) underlying this ideology has nonetheless been identified.6

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English translation:

  • Michel Tort. ‘The Freudian Concept of Representative (Repräsentanz)’, trans. Elizabeth Hindess. Economy and Society 3:1 (1974): 18-40.

Primary bibliography:

  • Freud, Sigmund. ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’ [1895]. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974. Vol. 1. [Hereafter ‘SE’ followed by volume number].
  • ---. ‘Letters to Wilhelm Fliess’, SE 1.
  • ---. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality [1905], SE 7.
  • ---. ‘Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)’ [The Schreber Case] [1911], SE 12.
  • ---. ‘Narcissism: An Introduction’ [1914], SE 14.
  • ---. ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’ [1914], SE 14.
  • ---. ‘Repression’ [1915], SE 14.
  • ---. ‘The Unconscious’ [1915], SE 14.
  • ---. ‘From the History of an Infantile Neurosis’ (‘The Wolf Man’) [1918], SE 17.
  • ---. ‘A Child is Being Beaten: A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions’ [1919], SE 17.
  • ---. Beyond the Pleasure Principle [1920], SE 18.
  • ---. ‘The Ego and the Id’ [1923], SE 19.
  • ---. ‘Negation’ [1925], SE 19.
  • ---. Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety [1926], SE 19.
  • ---. ‘An Outline of Psychoanalysis’ [1940], SE 23.
  • Laplanche, Jean and Serge Leclaire. ‘L’Inconscient: Une étude psychanalytique’. Les Temps modernes 183 (1961). ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’, trans. Patrick Coleman. Yale French Studies 48 (1972): The French Freud, ed. Jeffrey Mehlman.
  • Laplanche, Jean, and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. ‘Fantasme originaire, fantasme des origines, origine du fantasme’. Les Temps modernes 215 (April 1964). ‘Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 49:1 (1968). Reprinted in Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald & Cara Kaplan. London: Methuen, 1986.
  • ---. Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse. Paris: PUF, 1967. The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Hogarth Press, 1973.
  • Mannoni, Octave. ‘L’Homme aux Rats’. Les Temps modernes 228 (May 1965).

Selected secondary sources

  • Tort, Michel. ‘De l’interprétation ou la machine herméneutique’. Les Temps modernes 237 (February 1966).


1. Laplanche and Leclaire, ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytical Study’, 18/145.

2. Octave Mannoni, ‘L’Homme aux rats’, Les temps modernes, 228, May 1965, 204

3. Laplanche and Leclaire write: ‘It must be emphasised that the drive, properly speaking, has no place in mental life. Repression does not bear on it, it is neither conscious nor unconscious and it enters into the circuit of mental life only through the mediation of the Vorstellungsrepräsentanz. This is a rather unusual term of which it must be immediately said that in Freud’s usage, it is often found in divided form as one of its two components. We will translate this composite expression by “ideational representative” and we shall inquire into the nature of this mediation, through which the drive enters into (one could even say “is captured by”) mental life’. Laplanche and Leclaire, ‘The Unconscious’, 18/145.

4. Green also argues that the concept of ‘negative hallucination’ fits the category of ‘representative of the representation’ insofar as it expresses ‘the ascension of the zero considered as not originating in representation’ (CpA 3.2:31; trans. 183).

5. Laplanche and Leclaire, ‘The Unconscious’, 10/134.

6. Cf. Tort’s critique of Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutic interpretation of psychoanalysis in his 1966 ‘De l’interprétation ou la machine herméneutique’, published in Les temps modernes, 1966.